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McGair: Lives under scrutiny, young college athletes need steady leadership

November 12, 2013

PC head coach Ed Cooley

PROVIDENCE – There’s so much notoriety surrounding major college sports today that sometimes, we lose sight that the central figures are mere babes in the woods in terms of life experience.

Such an insight arrived with a side order of clarity during Ed Cooley’s postgame press conference following Providence’s overtime survival against Boston College last Friday. Naturally, the head coach expected a question about the status of suspended freshmen Brandon Austin and Rodney Bullock, who will likely miss their second straight games Wednesday night when the Friars host Brown. He took the opportunity to speak about mistakes, accountability and “running a program on standards.”

Sitting next to Bryce Cotton at the podium, Cooley looked out at the collection of reporters, cameramen and supporters and delivered a quote that helped to place everything into proper context regarding his profession.

“Our livelihood, unlike many people in this room, depends on 18- to 22-year-olds,” Cooley stated. “All of us were that age and we do make mistakes.”

Cooley is 100 percent accurate when he says that his fate as a college basketball coach is intertwined with young people and the actions they take. In this particular instance, though, we’re not talking about how many points or rebounds compiled by Player X. We’re talking about decorum and standards, which Cooley places a premium upon.

The Friar players that are in his care have to adhere to a finite code of principles. If they don’t there are consequences, which Austin and Bullock found out on the eve of their first college basketball game.
Novice or seasoned, freshman or senior, sometimes we forgot about classifications and view all players on a team such as PC through the same rose-tinted glassed. You are on the team, therefore, you must be a big deal.

Is a talented 18-year-old, who at this time last year was likely the king of the high-school hallways, truly ready to make the leap to having virtually your entire life under constant scrutiny for dissection? In a word, no, but such is the life of big-time athletics, where freshmen appear on magazine covers before they’ve played a game, and major TV networks orchestrate their programming around events like the 24-hour Hoops Marathon that ESPN staged Tuesday.

“The problem is that in higher athletics, and mainly in men’s basketball and football, players are viewed differently,” Cooley stated when asked to expand upon his “livelihood depending on 18- to 22-year-olds” remark earlier this week. “They’re rock stars. When you’re in small cities and in big states, everybody wants to know you and everyone is around you. You’re normal, but you’re just viewed differently.

“I don’t want anyone to treat our kids differently. I want them to respect them for who they are.”

It’s Cooley’s job to make sure that none of his players fall victim to the hype machine.

“You have speakers come in and you have seminars,” he said. “All you can continue to do is treat them just like your children and educate them on choices and consequences. You hold them to a standard.
“You are a surrogate parent, and that’s why you talk to these people when you recruit them and you talk to their biological parents about trusting you to do the right thing with their children,” Cooley expanded further. “Just like anything else, kids are going to try things and do things, and that’s why there’s accountability.”

If anything, Austin and Bullock should inquire about how Cooley handled Kadeem Batts two years ago. As a redshirt sophomore, Batts sat out the first 11 games of the 2011-12 season after “failing to meet the obligations of a student-athlete.”

Fast forward to last month’s Big East Media Day, where Cooley took the occasion to express dismay over Batts not meriting more than preseason honorable mention. Just like Austin and Bullock, the suspension that felled Batts was out there for public consumption. He couldn’t hide from the cruel facts, but to the now-senior’s credit, Batts has done his part in distancing himself from such a low point – so much so that Cooley was emphatic in his desire to go bat on his player’s behalf.
“As the leader, you need to set the example even if it hurts your team,” Cooley made perfectly clear. “That’s the pressure you put on the players that everything they do, it reflects on the team.”

Cooley started to go down the same road he did last Friday inside the pressroom at The Dunk, saying “your job don’t depend on …” before continuing on with his thought.

“Sometimes, it’s not all about winning and losing that everyone puts a heavy emphasis on,” he said. “When you’re supported at Providence College like the way we are, you’ve got to do things a certain way.”
Spoken like someone who knows a thing or two about going to great lengths to make sure that young people are toeing the line.

Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03

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